Author of mafia exposé lives in spotlight – and gun sights
Roberto Saviano says he would be giving in to mob power if he left Italy because of the death threats 'Gomorrah' has brought him.
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Until the book came out in 2006, Camorra stories had only been the subject of local news reports, not international bestsellers. Saviano never trained as a journalist – he thinks of himself more as a writer. He graduated in philosophy and then did some work for national newspapers. But how did he go from the boy on the bike proud of Casale's reputation to the young writer confined to a bulletproof sedan?Skip to next paragraph
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"I often say that fortunately, or unfortunately, I am made of the same clay as the people I write about. I don't feel a difference in our formation, but in our choices," he says.
His father was a local doctor who was always a bit envious of the Camorra's power and money and taught Saviano how to shoot a gun when he was young. But when he saved the young target of a shooting – instead of leaving him to die as mafia doctors are supposed to do – he was beaten up for it. Saviano's mother, on the other hand, was a teacher from northern Italy, who gave him the cultural instruments to distance himself from his surroundings.
Above all, however, it was his desire to understand how the System worked that pushed him to go down a different path. "I didn't choose a different path because I thought that what they do is morally revolting," he says. "What I'm trying to do is to understand where their world begins and the legal world ends, and I've understood that they often coincide."
He uses the example of a neighbor, a boss who'd invited Saviano to his daughter's wedding and who'd paid for another neighbor's studies abroad. "It's hard to think that that same clever, generous, and kind man could one day kill a guy ... by making him swallow sand just because he'd been flirting with his niece."
Saviano is a traditionalist in many ways, like many in our corner of southern Italy. In the custom of Casal di Principe, his town, he wears three simple rings on three separate fingers – they look like wedding rings and signify the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He is not a churchgoer, but he is not an atheist either. In fact one of the people who most inspired him was Father Peppino Diana, the antimafia parish priest of Casal di Principe who was murdered in his own church in 1994. (Father Diana compared Casale and its surroundings to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God for the sins of their citizens. That's where the wordplay used in the book title comes from.)
But ultimately it is Saviano's questioning of what drives people's decisions and what makes people tick that sets him apart from the rest.
"Understanding was my real vaccination, not rebelling against their violence," he says. "My fascination with that world remains, and I know it's dangerous, but I have written a book to try to take it apart."
And that book has cost him a lot. When it came out, even his friends and family left him alone. People in Casale thought he was a betrayer trying to profit from his experiences, and his family simply couldn't understand why he'd write about something as awful as the Camorra.
And then came the threats – that he believes are from the bosses he named in the book and who are suing him for libel. (He says he still can't forgive himself for putting his family in danger, too.) But worst of all, he says, was the police protection.
"Since I started living under escort, I've been feeling like a half man," he says. "People in Casale say that [the Camorra has] built me a coffin without having to shoot me in the head."
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We'd spent our first day together at Oxford University, where a bunch of Italian students who came to hear him talk were fascinated by him. He relaxed and joked with them about how bad English food is and how hard it must be to live away from home.
Seeing what a following he had here – and all over the world (his recently formed Facebook group has 1,200 members and there are over 6,000 on his MySpace profile) – it was hard to believe how lonely he must be at times. (His family has given him full support since he started receiving threats, but he's not in touch anymore with most of his old friends.)
So, wouldn't he rather leave and go somewhere where he didn't need constant police protection?
"Of course," he says. "But I can't do it yet. I've become a symbol and if I left I'd be giving in to their power. I need to keep going for now, and then we'll see."